Looking back, I probably used to sound a bit like Charlton Heston. But the only reason I can admit that today is because I’ve mellowed over the years. “From my cold, dead hands!” I used to say — only I wasn’t talking about a gun. I was talking about my unlimited mobile data plan.
As an early iPhone adopter, I got grandfathered into one of the sweetest deals going: an endless buffet of mobile data. Whether I needed it or not, the megabytes were there for the taking, letting me download more or less anything I needed.
The problem was, I needed less — and eventually that’s what I settled for. AT&T rang every enjoyable drop of data out of this deal, blocking apps like FaceTime from their service, putting caps on app size downloads, and even throttling users. For me, the last straw came when I realized that my data usage wasn’t even close to justifying my bottomless cup of bytes. I was really only paying for the potential, should I need it later. So I kissed goodbye the infinite Internet connection, and threw in on a family sharing plan with my wife. We thumb wrestle over 10 gigabytes per month, which is not necessarily digital austerity, but it is life on a data budget.
Now, with live-streaming apps like Meerkat and Periscope and cord-cutting services like Netflix gobbling up bandwidth, I’m kicking myself. This shouldn’t come as a surprise — the fact that file sizes and download opportunities only grow as time’s slider bar inches forward isn't exactly Moore’s Law, but it’s just as certain. Last year alone, according to Cisco, the world’s mobile data usage swelled 69%. These handheld devices alone accounted for 30 times more traffic than the entire Internet used in 2000. And video, not surprisingly, is the biggest culprit, accounting for 55% of mobile data traffic last year.
All this went down after my unlimited data plan went away. Sure, you could call that bad timing on my behalf, but I was not alone. And if there was already lot of friction between mobile operators and consumers, there’s even more now that cloud-centric apps are steaming things up.
It’s early yet to talk about how Meerkat and Periscope will impact the mobile data landscape, but Ustream has been in the live-streaming game for more than five years already. Much more than just a video-sharing app (though they also do that), Ustream also helps media companies, businesses, conferences, and various other entities get their videos online. To date, they’ve done more than 75 million broadcasts, including feeds for the Federal Reserve, NASA, and even Occupy Wall Street videographer Tim Pool.
Live-stream users should expect their data bill to reflect how they use these apps, says Ustream CEO Brad Hunstable. “If you broadcast for one minute, once to twice a week it’s not a big deal, “ he says. “But if you broadcast for an hour once or twice a day, you could have some sticker shock."
For instance, on Ustream, users can broadcast using high definition 720p at bitrates up to 2.5 megabits per second (Mbps) on Android, or at 360p for 1.5 Mbps. When it comes to watching videos, you can view at a resolution up to 720p on either platform, but the Ustream dynamically adjusts the video feed for the network or device.
"We’re optimizing for quality in the background,” says Hunstable. "If someone is on a poor connection, we’re actually going to send them a lower quality file to make sure that it gets delivered and works, and is not choppy.” In comparison, Meerkat and Periscope only play in standard definition.
Of course, live-streaming apps are a niche use case for data consumption. But they’re a fast growing one, with the ability to wipe out a monthly allotment in no time at all. And instead of limitless data plans, AT&T now provides a tool for determining your monthly data usage (though live-streamers may prefer Verizon's calculator, because it includes a video-calling option that’s comparable to live-streaming). That’s a nice gesture, I suppose, but I’d prefer to hit the undo button and get my grandfathered plan back instead.
Interestingly, notes Hunstable, mobile operators like AT&T and Verizon began capping their data just as the love for video apps has grown. "It’s only happened because the quality of the networks have improved over the past few years,” he says. Giving credit where it’s due, this is true. I have had no complaints on my service in the past two-plus years, whereas before my handset sounded like a ham radio, and downloaded apps like it was plugged into a dial-up modem.
But I refuse to give up hope that unlimited data is forever dead on AT&T or Verizon. After all, it has thrived on T-Mobile and Sprint, as these competitors using the opportunity to differentiate themselves in an attempt to steal customers away from other carriers. Whether that strategy is working is another story altogether, but it’s starting to make me think about switching, at least. And I’ve been with Ma Bell since the start of the century.
“My personal opinion is that we’re in a temporary place where they charge a lot for this data consumption,” says Hunstable, who is looking forward to technologies like 5G networks to make prices more reasonable and bandwidth bigger. And you can bet our appetites will keep pace.